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Laurel Hell: An Analysis of Mitski’s Latest Album

“Let’s step carefully into the dark/ once we’re in I’ll remember my way around; Who will I be tonight? Who will I become tonight?” “Valentine, Texas” starts with slow, dark descending keys, like walking down a staircase. “Wet teeth; shining eyes glimmering by a fire.” With the last word of this line, the song takes off like a rocket. Loud, dramatic synth sounds accompany the rich imagery of the lyrics. “Where clouds look like mountains; clouds look like mountains; let me watch those mountains from underneath; And maybe they’ll finally float off of me.” The opening lines of Laurel Hell feel like Mitski’s grand entrance back into the public eye.

The 31-year old artist known as Mitski released her first album, Lush, in 2012. Since then, she’s come to be known for soul-crushing songs such as “Nobody” and “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” The release of her latest album, Laurel Hell, followed two years of radio silence. At the end of Mitski’s tour for her 2018 album Be the Cowboy, she announced to an audience of fans that it would be her last show for an indefinite period of time. An instant feeling of regret overcame her the moment she stepped offstage. She later clarified in a tweet: “Y’all, I’m not quitting music! I’ve been on non-stop tour for over five years, I haven’t had a place to live during this time, & I sense that if I don’t step away soon, my self-worth/identity will start depending too much on staying in the game, in the constant churn.” She elaborated further on this in an interview with Rolling Stone. “The music industry is this supersaturated version of consumerism. You are the product being consumed, bought, and sold. Even the people on your team who are your friends, the very foundation of your dynamic is that they get a percentage of your income. Every time I turned something down, it would mean that they would make less money.”

Laurel Hell has taken the longest out of any of her albums to make. At the beginning of her hiatus, it was unclear whether Mitski would return to the stage. However, she was contractually obligated to make another album. It was also the first album that was made with a co-writer. Contributor Dan Wilson has worked with Adele and other pop artists, which may be part of the reason this album has an overall more positive tone than most of Mitski’s past work. Lili Minato (12), a fan of Mitski, comments,“I think it’s interesting how she made it more upbeat compared to a couple of her other albums. I know a lot of people see Mitski and they’re like ‘That’s sad music’ but not necessarily.”

 The title Laurel Hell comes from a folk tale about thickets of mountain laurel that would supposedly trap and kill people.This idea of being trapped or stuck in a maze can be seen throughout the different songs. Although “Valentine, Texas” is the opening track, it was not the first to be released. A series of singles and their accompanying music videos came out beginning October of last year. “I thought she did it in a good way, it kept you on your toes, you’re like, oh, new song,” Minato expresses. “And then she was like, just kidding, at least in my eyes, whole album. And I was like, whoa. That’s crazy.” The rest of the album dropped on February 4.

“Working for the Knife”

Mitski’s struggles with the music industry are the focus of the first single that was released in October, “Working for the Knife.” It begins with a beat that includes a distinctive cowbell. Heart wrenching lyrics typical of Mitski, such as “I always knew the world moves on; I just didn’t know it would go without me” give her listeners a look into her feelings about her break from music. The music video for this song begins with blurry shots of Mitski wearing a cowboy hat (a callback to her the title of her last album), looking away from the camera. Her high heels click as she makes her way up an elevator and into an empty auditorium, like she’s commuting to work. The rest of the video shows her putting on a facade for an invisible audience. She does the happy/sad pantomime, possibly showing how she has to perform vulnerability. After the music ends, she has a sort of breakdown with expressive dancing and heavy breathing. She turns to face the camera just as it cuts out. This striking video accompaniment set the tone for the rest of the album.

“Stay Soft”

“Stay Soft” builds on the knife imagery of the last song with the lyrics, “Fury, pure and silver; You grip it tight inside; Like a knife; It glints in your eye.” The upbeat nature may feel strange paired with its dark lyrics, but this, of course, was intentional. In an interview with Crack Magazine, Mitski explains the choice. “I can’t put myself into a sad song that’s outwardly sad,” she says. “I find it’s easier to allow a song in when the message might be depressing or dark, but has a veneer of happiness. Otherwise, it’s off-putting. It starts to feel like whining.” In a press release with Genius, she explains the messages in the song’s lyrics. “This song, frankly, is about hurt people finding each other, and using sex to make sense of their pain. This is by no means the correct way to cope with trauma, but it’s a thing people do regardless, and I always want to write songs about what we actually do, so that we don’t feel alone in them.” The video, which was the last to come out before the entire album, is as strange as the self-contradictory nature of the song. It shows Mitski in a garden, where she comes across a man-eating flower. “I saw a little clip of “Stay Soft”. I love the lil’ guy, it’s like Little Shop of Horrors,” Minato comments. The video goes on to show some interesting troll-like creatures attacking and dragging her away. She eventually kills them with yard clippers and carefully and tenderly feeds their blood to the flower.

“Everyone”

 This feels more like Mitski’s earlier work, one of the less popular songs that mostly stays under the radar. According to Genius, “The song sees Mitski speak on her music career and her sudden rise to fame in a metaphorical manner.” The lyrics, “Then like a babe in a crib; After some big hand turns out the light” are similar to the lyrics of later songs like “Should’ve Been Me.”I’d be going ’bout my day until a hand; Would come and lift me out; And drop me in the middle of a labyrinth; Where I’d be stuck a while.” There is a repeating theme of a disembodied hand, an entity of some sort, taking control of Mitski’s life. This could be a personification of the music industry, or just a continuation of the theme of feeling stuck, as is referenced in the album’s title.

“Heat Lightning”

This track’s name refers to a term for lightning from a thunderstorm that is too far away to see or hear. Mitski uses this weather phenomenon to describe a lack of control over an “approaching storm.” The song itself is about insomnia and the feelings that come with it. “I’ve laid awake since one; And now it’s four o’clock.” Like many of Mitski’s other songs, it has a moment of buildup that feels like it will launch into a show stopping anthem. This occurs with the lyrics, “There’s nothing I can do; Not much I can change; I give it up to you, I surrender.” Instead, it collapses into a piano riff and continues as before. 

“The Only Heartbreaker”

While some of Mitski’s songs are largely up to the interpretation of the listener, this one has a very straightforward message. In the video, she runs through a forest. As she does, the trees around her die instantly, midas-touch style. She beats her chest along with the rhythm of the song, like a heartbeat. In her interview with Rolling Stone, she explains: “[It is about] the person always messing up in the relationship, the designated Bad Guy who gets the blame. It could simply be about that, but I also wanted to depict something sadder beneath the surface, that maybe the reason you’re always the one making mistakes is because you’re the only one trying.” This is definitely one of the more “top 40” songs with its repetitive chorus formulated for sing-alongs. At its climax, the forest around her bursts into flames. This could be a connection to “Valentine, Texas”, where the song also takes off with the word “fire.”

“Love Me More”

The 80s and New Wave influences are clear throughout Laurel Hell, but they are most obvious in this song. “I like how she made it kinda 80’s inspired, I thought that was nice. But it still has the same kind of vibe that brings you back. It’s not brand new, she still keeps her style,” Minato says. Though it may appear at first glance to be about yearning for the affection of another, “Love Me More” is not so simple. In 2018, Mitski was interviewed on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. “I think music is just my closest relationship, it’s been my only friend sometimes growing up, cause I grew up moving around, I didn’t know anybody, but I would play music or sing music to myself,” she explains. “It’s kind of hard being a musician, so sometimes when I sing about being spurned by a lover, it’s actually the feeling of being spurned by music or my career in music.” Mitski’s verified Genius commentary goes into another element of the track. “As “Love Me More” was written pre-pandemic, lyrics like “If I keep myself at home” had different meanings than what they would now, but I kept them on the album because I founds that some of the sentiments not only remained the same, but were accentuated by the lockdown,” she says. The music video depicts many different versions of Mitski and her attempts to mimic them in different ways. In one scene, she attempts to fit different piano keys into a doorknob. She sees a marionette of herself in the window and gestures for it to let her in before it closes the curtain and ignores her. 

“There’s Nothing Left For You”

This is true of the entire album, but this song in particular feels like it was made on a single keyboard. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it ties into some of the ideas around the isolation that came with the pandemic. There are a lot of elements in this song that remind me of other songs in the album; The heartbeat like in the “The Only Heartbreaker” video, the fact that it also climaxes with the word “fire.” It feels different from other songs because it’s more like the Mitski songs that you listen to while crying alone in your room, like “Nobody.”

“Should’ve Been Me”

This song is by far the catchiest of Laurel Hell. It’s a bit of a jarring mood transition from “There’s Nothing Left For You”, but the lyrics aren’t exactly happy. It feels like something you’d hear in a John Hughes movie. Though it skews more in the pop direction, it isn’t as repetitive as the others. “Should’ve Been Me—Banger. Amazing,” Minato states. “I love the intro. It is so fun. I had to listen to it the past two mornings to get out of bed…She’s like ‘you dated someone exactly like me.’ Sucks.”

“I Guess”

Another one of the less upbeat, dancey songs, “I Guess” is formatted more like a poem than a typical song. Lines such as “It’s been you and me; Since before I was me” explore feelings of being lost after the end of a relationship where one’s identity was tied to their partner. Similar to “There’s Nothing Left For You”, this is one of Mitski’s purely melancholic songs.

“That’s Our Lamp”

There’s something tonally odd about this song. Something about it doesn’t match the rest of the album. It’s almost like the credits rolling at the end of a movie with an unresolved ending. The lyrics appear to be about moving out of an apartment shared with a lover. There are faint sounds of people arguing in the background. The album fades out with the words “that’s where you loved me,” sung by many voices in harmony. 

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